Why socialists don’t need human nature

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By Themistoklis Pantazakos May 22, 2017
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal In his recent Jacobin article, Adaner Usmani makes a claim that will sound odd to the socialists of our times, or at least to the post-structuralists among them. This claim is, per the title of Usmani’s piece, that socialists should believe in the existence of human nature. That this claim should raise a fair amount of eyebrows among contemporary socialists is expected, as Usmani himself recognizes: human nature has been a repository, a refuge and a departure point for much of the reactionary political thought of the modern era. The concept is typically summoned to block any kind of socialist programme in its genesis. Per a certain right-wing ideology, human nature, which is held to consist of qualities of the ilk of selfishness and greediness, is intrinsically antithetical to a life built on solidarity as described in a manifold of socialist and communist political programs. As Usmani correctly notes, a traditional socialist retort to this kind of right-wing rhetoric is to deny that human nature exists. The socialist reply normally stresses that humans are more likely made than born, and argues that selfishness and greediness are imposed on people living in socio-political systems that prioritize and reward these qualities. We live in a capitalist world, a good socialist would say, which means that those who act having calculated self-interest in mind will often end up accumulating more goods and recognition than those who do not. This means, for example, that parents anxious for the well-being of their children will teach them to surpass others or even step on them on the way to the top. It is this kind of mechanism, rather than a set of principles inherent to the human body and psyche, that is responsible for the reproduction of opportunistic values in human beings and societies. The system is not adapted to the individual; the system molds the individual. Usmani calls this thesis the ‘Blank Slate Thesis’ and holds that it is both plainly wrong in and of itself, and a wrong cornerstone to have for defending the possibility of another kind of society. This is because the Blank Slate Thesis suffers from three serious defects: a moral, an analytical, and a political defect. In brief these problems are as follows. The moral problem, Usmani argues, is that we need to pose some kind of universal human nature in order to engage with any kind of emancipatory politics: if it is not in human nature to be dissatisfied with hunger, enslavement and general oppression, if it is just a matter of opinion and subjective experience that these things are bad, then how can we possibly act against them collectively? How can socialists urge people to act against oppression without the incentive and anchor of moral legitimacy? The second problem is the analytical one: if we do not adhere to a certain set of principles about how humans and human societies function, how can we possibly offer a tool for analysis and methods for the betterment of these societies? It is a leftist commonplace that historical materialism, and likely all emancipatory politics, rest irreducibly on some kind of assumptions about how humans generally function. If one is to take these assumptions away, then socialist politics would be merely stumbling in the dark, having no way to suggest how to move forward in a wholly indeterminate future. Last but not least is the political problem. We socialists, Usmani contends, tend to assume that people who do not vow by our political project simply do not grasp its greatness: such people are stupid or bigoted or both. He suggests another reading: that we have failed to put ourselves in the people’s shoes and see the world as they do. Committing to the Blank Slate Thesis allegedly blocks this attempt: it omits to take notice of the fact that people are animated by certain kinds of concerns which arise naturally for them and which they cannot do away with, not any more than we socialists can do away with ours. In this reading, socialists should address these concerns and take them seriously, not simply dismiss them as simply bigotry or intellectual incapacity. Despite raising a number of interesting and challenging points, I think that Usmani’s thesis is wrong. Specifically, I believe that none of the three negative consequences Usmani lists comes from dropping the idea of human nature the way the socialist postmodern political thought does. To see if and why that is, we must begin with clearly defining what we refer to when we refer to human nature. In academic terms, the ‘nature’ of something is couched in its essence. An essence is a feature or a property of something that defines what that something is. Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, believed that essences (Platonic Forms) reside in a world parallel to ours, and that empirical things in this world are materializations of ‘dressed up’ essences. Imagine, for example, that there is a red table in front of you. You would concede that it would still be a table if painted blue, but it would no longer be a table if you could not put things on it anymore. This tells us that the property of being able to leave things on the table is essential to it, contrary to its redness, which is not. What does this have to do with humans and more specifically with the discussion at hand? For starters, thinkers in the modern leftist political thought who stand behind the idea that human nature is effectively non-existent (such as Michel Foucault) are precisely in the business of denying that there are any essential features to humans. Depending on the social antagonism referred to (class, race, gender et cetera), leftist post-structuralism is mainly about negating the claim that there are defining sine qua nons which universally pre-dispose social order across all its fields. Take for example the issue of class and of the distribution of wealth. An example of anti-essentialism in this area would be to deny that people are inherently, unavoidably greedy and vested in self- interest alone; to deny, that is, one of the chief assumptions of neoclassical (read: neoliberal) economics. Or take gender and sexuality: anti-essentialism there would deny that a person’s reproductive organs mean (or, more importantly, should mean) something definitive about the way they behave and their sexual preferences. Now, you may start to see why anti-essentialism and rejecting human nature are appealing ideas. To further illustrate this point, try thinking the issue from the side of the bad guys. For most traditional forms of hate speech, there is something essential about the targeted Other (women, migrants et cetera), which makes them worthy of being on the receiving end of violence, or perhaps unworthy of even being called human. This something changes as hate speech assumes different forms and targets, but there is usually an irremovable characteristic that serves to degrade a given social group: the color of their skin, their Jewish cunningness, some corrupt desire that runs against the alleged course of nature. I have so far argued that there is important intuitive motivation for socialists to deny the concept of human nature and the idea that there is a specific essential thing inside humans that makes them human, or that humans are behaviorally or otherwise pre-destined towards a certain kind of fate. The above can be summarized as consisting one historical and one conceptual argument: the historical argument is that human nature has been employed chiefly in reactionary and hate rhetoric, and the conceptual argument is that restricting conclusions about how humans may behave put an upper limit to utopian politics, under the rubric of which fall a good deal of socialist programs. Of course, it’s important to see that, no matter where motivation against human nature comes from and how much it is, in and of itself it is not a counter-argument to Usmani’s problems, which I would now like to turn to. Take the moral problem, which is the problem of being unable to tell when a certain social group is being oppressed in the absence of a definition of human nature. In reply to this, I submit that it is not anything essential within humans that should make socialists argue that a certain practice is morally susceptible. For example, the socialist political line regarding domestic abuse should not be that there is something to exercising violence that makes the act inappropriate to all occasions universally and regardless of context. As has been widely argued, violence in the household in another, recreational and consensual context may be perfectly acceptable. It is a leftist commonplace, I should like to think, that two or more people engaging, for example, in enthusiastically consensual sadomasochistic practices should never be told that they are engaging in a morally susceptible practice. With this, I mean to say that what the left should do is not look at a certain act from the outside and decide what the appropriate moral stance towards it should be. Rather, what the left by and large does and should do is to listen to the communal self-reporting of people who self-define as oppressed. The rule of thumb for detecting oppression should be self- reporting, and not reference to a universal establishment of timeless values. Else, the left runs the risk of being unfairly didactic towards people who do not experience any kind of abuse or oppression. This is also historically the case: we know that workers are being oppressed in capitalism because of trade unions, and we know that women are being oppressed in patriarchy because of feminist social movements. Of course, how one determines the authentic representative of the oppressed remains a vastly complicated issue, but the principle generally holds: in neither case do we know that oppression takes places because someone other than the oppressed subjects has decided that for them. To move to the analytical problem, which holds that one is left without any analytical compass of prediction and political suggestion should one abandon the concept of human nature, I will open with the following remark: that something is not eternal does not mean that it is not steady, or that you cannot count on it. If one believes in evolutionary theory, and I take it that most socialists do, one is sure to believe that the biological characteristics of humans will almost certainly change given enough time. That, however, does not change the fact that, regarding the past we have in view and the foreseeable future, humans are mostly born with two hands with certain capacities and sensitivities. Based on that and on the most common human needs of our time, one can therefore predict that gloves will keep being made, in such and such shapes, to fit human hands and protect them while performing tasks to satisfy these needs. Similarly, certain principles appear to be governing the social, political and economic world, and analytically spotting and employing them does not lose any power from realizing that they may not be eternal. To abandon essentialism is not to embrace chaos. Lastly, let me take up the political problem. Usmani argues that socialists often fail to take notice of the concerns and needs of others who are not in their position, and unfortunately fail to adapt their politics so as to win those others over. This seems to me to be his weakest point. One reply is that, should socialists put themselves completely in these so-called others’ shoes, they would unavoidably become these others, and would adopt these others’ politics and values. But perhaps Usmani talks about a partial adoption of the others’ positions simply for the use of advancing more effective politics. To which I reply that, surely, this can occasionally be beneficial depending on what the desired ends of one’s politics is, but I simply do not see how this empathetic stratagem must amount to any kind of claim about the universal nature of humans. Must I believe that something is the same and eternal in humans to try and simulate how the human being next to me must feel and think? I think not. In conclusion, I have argued that, while there is much reason to leave notions of human nature cashed out in terms of essentialism behind, there does not seem to be much reason to adopt the concept. This, however, does not come with the dreaded moral relativism, nor with analytical chaos, nor, lastly, does it leave us unable to empathize with people we are actually trying to win over. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have at this ending point to admit my reaching the same conclusion as Usmani. All this means that another world is definitely possible. Don’t let the fools get you down and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Themistoklis Pantazakos is based at University College, London. The author would like to thank Jordan Osserman for his help in editing this piece.